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Once Rent-a-Center filed its response to the East St. Louis lawsuit, the case took procedural twists so unbelievable that they could have come from a John Grisham novel.
When the women's attorneys sent discovery requests to Rent-a-Center, the company refused to answer. When they filed a motion with the court to compel Rent-a-Center to cooperate, U.S. Magistrate Judge Gerald B. Cohn ordered the company to answer within twenty days. Rent-a-Center asked Cohn to reconsider; he didn't change his mind.
Still fighting, Rent-a-Center took up the matter with Judge Herndon. The federal judge denied the request and ordered the company to cough up the documents. But three weeks after Herndon's order, the company still hadn't produced a single document.
Then the women's attorneys discovered that computer tapes containing seven years' worth of monthly payroll information had been destroyed. Moreover, several monthly lists identifying individuals eligible for promotion couldn't be found.
The women's attorneys filed a motion for sanctions. Herndon ordered at least one of the Texas attorneys to appear in his courtroom. According to a transcript of the hearing on August 17, 2001, Herndon said he was "distressed" by what appeared to be "a complete disregard" of the magistrate's order and demanded that the company pay the women's attorneys for the time they had wasted trying to get the information. As for the missing payroll computer tapes, Herndon ordered Rent-a-Center to stop destroying personnel records. The next week, Ernie Talley personally sent out a company-wide letter stating that all personnel information "must be maintained and shall not be spoiled, destroyed or discarded."
The information finally provided by the company was analyzed by outside experts hired by the plaintiffs' lawyers. Dr. David Peterson, a statistician, compiled a report on Rent-a-Center's hiring, promotion and firing practices. Peterson found that a disproportionate number of women, compared with men, left the company after Talley took over. And Peterson noted that the size of Rent-a-Center's female workforce was well below the average for other companies within the rent-to-own industry.
Dr. James Misner, an expert on human motion, examined the 75-pound lifting rule and concluded it wasn't a genuine requirement because Rent-a-Center didn't test the applicants on it. The kinesiologist also found that the requirement wasn't correlated with successful job performance and that its real effect was to discourage women from applying.
Tammy Shell, the woman Rent-a-Center urged a reporter to speak with for this story, says just about the same thing. Shell, who has never hired a woman during her three-year tenure as a store manager, admits that she's never actually tested any applicants because "there is no test to lift 75 pounds." She also explains that she's never hired any women because the few women who do apply usually don't end up taking an application after they're told about the 75-pound lifting requirement. And she adds that because most of "our lifting is done with hand-trucks and dollies," an employee doesn't even really need to be able to lift 75 pounds.
Armed with their sworn statements and expert reports, the women in the East St. Louis case were set to file their class-certification motion on the court's deadline date of November 1, 2001. But on October 31, Rent-a-Center's lawyers surprised them with a special Halloween trick: They announced a $12.25-million settlement of a class-action sex-discrimination lawsuit in Kansas City.